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Support reform of expungement process

Legislators should move quickly to approve bipartisan reform of Wisconsin’s expungement laws. It is time to remove unnecessary burdens on people who have paid their debts to society, and allow them a second chance at a clear criminal record opening up avenues of employment.

Expungement is a legal process where a judge may seal the records of a first time offender in a minor offense, making the records unavailable through the state or federal repositories. The action essentially wipes clean the individual’s record as if the offense had not taken place, much like juvenile records are sealed when someone becomes an adult.

Under current law, judges must make the expungement ruling at the time of sentencing, making it impossible for judges to determine if the offender has seen the error of their ways and actually learned from their mistake.

Senate Bill 78, sponsored by Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills), Sen. Kelda Roys (D-Madison), Rep. David Steffen (R-Green Bay) and Representative Evan Goyke (D-Milwaukee), would allow a hearing to be held after a sentence is completed at which time the judge could rule if expungement should take place.

The reform measure would also clarify the law as to criminal background disclosures on employment applications and prevent expunged records from preventing an individual from getting a professional license in the state. Under SB78, expungement would only be available for non-violent crimes that were no greater than a Class H felony in severity.

The reality of the world is that people screw up and that a single screw up should not haunt a person for the rest of their life and prevent them from moving on and finding meaningful employment commensurate with their skill and ability level.

The bill also provides a clear definition of the successful completion of a sentence including completing community services, paying all fines, fees, restitution, and completing any community supervision without revocation.

By its very nature expungement is a legal tool that should be used sparingly to address unique situations where there is both remorse and the potential for personal growth so that the offender can fully participate in a positive way as a member of society. The bill includes the option for the court to rule a specific case is not eligible to be expunged during sentencing. This will help prevent it from being abused.

Where the bill falls short is in not guaranteeing protection to newspapers and media companies in regard to archived reporting on cases. Expungement says that legally a crime is no longer on someone’s record. Newspapers provide a living history of the communities in which they serve and erasing a wrongdoing from the court records does not erase it from the memories of those involved or from media archives, nor should it. The bill should be amended to include additional protections for newspaper archives.

Expungement reform is overdue in Wisconsin and with some tweaks SB 78 is a good first step in that direction.